Dear Liz: My ex-husband is 13 years younger than me. We’ve been married for 10 years and he earns more than me. If I start receiving my own Social Security benefit at age 70, can I switch to his benefit when I am 75 and he is 62?
Answer: Normally, a person who applies for Social Security is “deemed” or presumed to be applying for all the benefits for which he is eligible. For example, if you qualify for your own retirement benefit and a divorce benefit, you will receive the higher of the two amounts. You wouldn’t be able to switch from one to the other later.
However, there are a few exceptions to this rule, and your situation is one of them. You will not be eligible for a divorce benefit until your ex-husband has reached the minimum retirement age (62). At that point, you would be eligible for 50% of his primary insurance amount, or the check he would get at full retirement age, which is currently between 66 and 67. If that amount is higher than what you receive, you could switch.
However, if you’re going to switch, you may not want to wait until age 70 to apply for your own benefit. Deferral makes sense for most people, as they will exceed the breakeven age of their late 70s, when the greater value of the deferred benefit more than makes up for the smaller checks they leave behind in the meantime. However, if you switch at age 75, you haven’t received your own benefit long enough to make up for bypassing the smaller checks, says Dr. William Reichenstein, head of research at Social Security Solutions.
Deciding when to start Social Security can be tricky even in simpler situations than yours, so consider using a site like Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security for advice on when to file a claim.
Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Inquiries can be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact Us” form at asklizwestton.com.